China 101: A guide to the Middle Kingdom for the first time visitor

By Joe Sinisi

By any measure, China is a huge nation with an ancient culture.  The same size as the US geographically and with more than four times as many people and landscapes varying from rainforests, to deserts to the Himalayas, China can seem an overwhelming travel destination.  With information and careful planning, a first time visitor can capture the essence of this dynamic nation’s people and their 5,000 year old culture in a 10 days trip.  This introduction will highlight four of the most historic and interesting areas to visit on your first trip.  It will visit the north, west, south and East and see many of the nation’s iconic destinations.

Beijing: The North

Beijing, its name meaning “northern capital”, is the ideal spot to start a visit of China. It has direct air connections to 8 North American cities on a variety of airlines.  Beijing has been the capital of unified China several times during the centuries of Imperial Dynasties and most recently since 1949 under the People’s Republic.

Today Beijing is not only the heart of the government, the area hosts 6 of China’s 43  UNESCO World Heritage sites, four of which are must see icons of the Muddle Kingdom.  The Forbidden City is a walled compound in the exact center of Beijing, just north of Tiananmen Square.  The 999 building complex housed the emperors and their concubine and eunuch entourages of the Ming and Qing dynasty from its construction in 1420 to the end of Imperial rule in 1911. Although most of the art work and interior furnishings were stolen by Chiang Kaishek’s defeated Nationalist army and shipped off to Taiwan, the architectural grandeur of the palace is amazing.  Not far south lies the Temple of Heaven, an amazing structure built by Ming emperors at the same time as the Forbidden City. This triple conical pagoda complex was erected only with interlocking wood, not a single nail or adhesive was used. The large, tranquil parklands surrounding the temple are always full of active Beijing senior citizens doing Tai Chi exercises, ball room dancing or playing cards. 

To the Northwest of the city (like everything else easily accessible by the modern subway system, the world’s third largest) sits the summer palace, a grand palatial retreat fashioned for the Empress Dowager Cixi and the Qing emperors in the mid 1800s, the waning days of China’s last dynasty.  The highlight is the long corridor, a half mile long covered walkway decorated by over 14,000 unique support beam paintings.

The only site you can’t take the subway to is the incomparable Great Wall of China which snakes along mountain ridges to the North of Beijing. Built in stages over a 1500 year period, this engineering marvel is the preeminent symbol of China. Although it never held back invading Northern barbarian hordes as it was intended, the beauty of the wall climbing up and down steep mountain ridges truly does  remind one of an immense dragon.  The Mutianayu section is much more rugged, scenic and less crowded than the Badaling section favored by Presidents and foreign dignitaries. Beijing has over 60,000 restaurants serving a plethora of delicious cuisine. Be sure to try the city’s signature dish, Peking Duck, at Da Dong, the finest of the dozens of restaurants that serve the delicacy.

Xian: The West

A two hour plane ride or six hour high speed train ride takes the traveler from the modern capital of Beijing to the ancient capital of Xian in the western Shaanxi province. The name translates to ”Western Peace”, Xian was the terminus of the fabled silk road and was the largest city in the world a thousand years ago. Xian is most famous as the place where the terracotta army was discovered by farmers digging a well in 1974. To date, over 7000 life size soldiers, archers, chariots and horses have been excavated in the huge mausoleum complex of Qin Shihuangdi, China’s first emperor who unified China in 221 BC. Emperor Qin (pronounced “chin”)  is where westerners got the name China. Chinese have always referred to their country as “Zhong Guo”, the Middle Kingdom. The terra cotta army is truly a wonder of the world and should be on anyone’s bucket list.  Besides the army, Xian is the last large Chinese city to maintain its ancient city walls. The 11 mile circumference walls are 40 feet high and 100 feet wide, allowing people to stroll or even bike on the cobble stones and look down on the bustling bazaar of the Muslim quarter, a vestige of the trade, religions and technologies the Silk Road transferred between Asia and Europe.

Guilin: The South

Another two hour flight takes one from Xian to Guilin in the southern Guangxi Autonomous region. Meaning ‘Osmanthus Forest”, Guilin  is a large city nestled in a region of iconic China landscapers. Thousands of vegetated limestone karst hills are sprinkled like green gumdrops across emerald valleys full of bamboo groves, rice paddies and placid rivers. These are the landscapes that have inspired thousands Chinese scroll paintings over the millennia. The the traveler can best experience these stunning landscapes  on a cruise down he Li river to the user friendly town of Yangshuo. There one can hike, bike or walk through the amazing landscape populated by the Zhuang ethnic minority group that practice terraced rice farming and cormorant bird fishing techniques unchanged for thousands of years.

Shanghai: The East

The first trip to China ends in Shanghai, the booming financial capital and largest metropolis of China with 18 million people. Shanghai, which means “Above the Sea” is situated at the mouth of the Yangtze river where it spills into the East China sea.  Shanghai doesn’t have a long history by Chinese standards, it was a small fishing town until foreign trading concessions sprang up in the 1840s. Today Shanghai is ultra modern , hosting some of the world’s finest modern architecture and four of the world’s ten tallest buildings.  The contract of the colonial art deco architecture along the Bund with the sleek modernity of the Pudong section across the river is amazing.  Shanghai has great food, shopping and nightlife in pedestrian areas such as the French Concession and Xiantiandi.  It is easy to fly back to North America from Shanghai as it also is connected by direct flights to six cities.

This offers a taste of the wonders that are China. There are many other regions to visit in subsequent journeys: Tibet, the Three Gorges of the Yangtze, the Silk Road, Sichuan and Hong Kong are but a few of the exotic Chinese destinations awaiting the intrepid traveler.

The author, Joe Sinisi, is co-owner of Access China Tours.  For 17 years the company has specialized in crafting small group custom travel experiences to China and Asia. You can contact them at, 800-788-1399.

Joe Sinisi can be reached at

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